US State Court System, US, EU Universities Hit by Ransomware Outbreak

A global ransomware outbreak has scrambled servers belonging to the U.S. state of Florida’s Supreme Court and several universities in the United States and Central Europe, according to a Reuters analysis of ransom notes posted online to stricken servers.

Those organizations are among more than 3,800 victims of a fast-spreading digital extortion campaign that locked up thousands of servers in Europe over the weekend, according to figures tallied by Ransomwhere, a crowdsourced platform that tracks digital extortion attempts and online ransom payments and whose figures are drawn from internet scans.

Ransomware is among the internet’s most potent scourges. Although this extortion campaign was not sophisticated, it drew warnings from national cyber watchdogs in part because of the speed of its spread.

Ransomwhere did not name individual victims, but Reuters was able to identify some by looking up internet protocol address data tied to the affected servers via widely used internet scanning tools such as Shodan.

The extent of the disruption to the affected organizations, if any, was not clear.

Florida Supreme Court spokesperson Paul Flemming told Reuters that the affected infrastructure had been used to administer other elements of the Florida state court system, and that it was segregated from the Supreme Court’s main network.

“Florida Supreme Court’s network and data are secure,” he said, adding that the rest of the state court system’s integrity also was not affected.

A dozen universities contacted by Reuters, including the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Rice University in Houston, and institutions of higher learning in Hungary and Slovakia, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Reuters also contacted the hackers via an account advertised on their ransom notes but only received a payment demand in return. They did not respond to additional questions.

Ransomwhere said the cybercriminals appear to have extorted only $88,000, a modest haul by the standard of multimillion-dollar ransoms regularly demanded by some hacking gangs.

One cybersecurity expert said the outbreak, thought to have exploited a 2-year-old vulnerability in VMWare software, was typical of automated attacks on servers and databases that have been carried out by hackers for years.

VMWare has urged customers to upgrade to the latest versions of its software.

“This is nothing unusual,” said Patrice Auffret, founder of French internet scanning company Onyphe. “The difference is the scale.”

Also uncommon is the highly visible nature of the outbreak, which began earlier this month. Because internet-facing servers were affected, researchers and tracking services like Ransomwhere or Onyphe could easily follow the criminals’ trail.

Digital safety officials in Italy said Monday that there was no evidence pointing to “aggression by a state or hostile state-like entity.”

Samuli Kononen, an information security specialist at the Finnish National Cyber Security Centre, said the attack was likely carried out by a criminal gang, although he added that it was not particularly sophisticated as many victims had managed to salvage their data without paying a ransom.

“More experienced ransomware groups usually don’t make that kind of mistake,” he said.

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Turkey, Syria Quakes Spark Dire Humanitarian Concerns

In response to deadly earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, the United States has mobilized search and rescue teams to support relief efforts. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias spoke with humanitarian workers about the challenges and how people can help.

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Death Toll Rises as Rescue Efforts Continue

The death toll from Monday’s massive earthquakes in Turkey and Northern Syria has passed 5,000 people, with rescue efforts continuing into another bitterly cold night. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Istanbul with Memet Aksakal in Diyarbakir, Turkey.

Camera: Memet Aksakal, Mahmut Bozarslan

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Russia Sentences Popular Cookbook Author Over Ukraine Posts

A Moscow court on Monday sentenced a popular cookbook author and blogger to nine years in prison after convicting her in absentia of spreading false information about the country’s military. The trial was part of the Kremlin’s sweeping, months-long crackdown on dissent. 

The charges against Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who lives abroad, were brought over her Instagram posts that the authorities alleged contained “deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to destroy cities and the civilian population of Ukraine, including children.” 

Belotserkovskaya, whose Instagram profile says she was born in Odessa, a city in southern Ukraine, responded to the news of the sentencing by writing that she is, “on one hand, perplexed, and on the other hand, of course, proud.” 

Russia’s Investigative Committee announced launching a case against Belotserkovskaya on March 16, 2022, several weeks after Moscow’s troops rolled into Ukraine. It was the first publicly-known case under a new law adopted earlier that month that penalized information seen as disparaging to the Russian military. 

The Russian authorities issued an arrest order for the blogger in absentia, put her on a wanted list and seized 153 million rubles (roughly $2.2 million) worth of her assets. 

She was also declared a “foreign agent,” a designation that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations aimed at discrediting the recipient. 

Belotserkovskaya has been handed the longest prison sentence under the new law and is the second prominent public figure to be sentenced in absentia. 

Last week, a Moscow court sentenced Alexander Nevzorov, a television journalist and former lawmaker, in absentia to eight years in prison on the same charges.  

Nevzorov was accused of posting “false information” on social media about the Russian shelling of a maternity hospital in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol. Moscow has fiercely denied its involvement. 

The journalist moved abroad after the start of the Ukrainian conflict. 

In December, prominent opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to 8½ years in prison under the same law. Earlier last year, Alexei Gorinov, a member of a Moscow municipal council Yashin used to chair, was sentenced to seven years in prison for his critical remarks about the hostilities in Ukraine. 

Another leading opposition figure, Vladimir Kara-Murza, is currently in custody facing the same charges. 

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Ukraine’s Blackouts Force It to Embrace Greener Energy

As Russia’s targeted attacks on the Ukrainian energy infrastructure continue, Ukraine is forced to rethink its energy future. While inventing ways to quickly restore and improve the resilience of its energy system, Ukraine is also looking for green energy solutions. Anna Chernikova has the story from Irpin, one of the hardest-hit areas of the Kyiv region. Camera: Eugene Shynkar.

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Ukrainian Defense Minister Expresses Thanks for Support Amid Rumors of Replacement

Ukrainian Defense Secretary Oleksii Reznikov tweeted Tuesday that reforms continue, “even during the war,” in comments that came amid a string of government resignations and firings and rumors that he would be replaced. 

“Thank you all for your support, as well as constructive criticism. We draw conclusions,” Reznikov said. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not publicly remarked on comments from a member of parliament suggesting Reznikov would be transferred to another position. 

In his nightly address Monday, Zelenskyy said his government is “strengthening our management positions,” including appointing “managers with military experience” in border and frontline regions. 

Reznikov has said that while he was not planning to resign, any decision about his future would be made by the president.  

The shakeup of Zelenskyy’s government in late January included the resignation of Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov, who was in charge of logistical support for Ukraine’s forces. He cited allegations about a food procurement scandal that he denies. 

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could be preparing an offensive to show gains as the one-year anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine approaches.

Britain’s defense ministry said Tuesday Russia has likely been trying to restart offensive operations in Ukraine since early January, and that its goal “is almost certainly to capture the remaining Ukrainian-held parts of Donetsk Oblast.” 

Britain’s assessment said it is “unlikely that Russia can build up the forces needed to substantially affect the outcome of the war within the coming weeks.”    

UN chief warns of escalation    

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday warned nations that he fears the likelihood of further escalation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict means the world is heading toward a “wider war.”   

“The prospects for peace keep diminishing. The chances of further escalation and bloodshed keep growing,” he told diplomats in New York. “I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open.”   

As Ukraine awaits more weapons from the West to repel Russian forces, Switzerland is close to breaking with a centuries-long tradition as a neutral state, as pro-Ukrainian sentiments pervade public and political sectors, pressuring the government to end its ban on exports of Swiss weapons.    

Under Swiss neutrality, dating back to 1815 and enshrined by treaty in 1907, Switzerland will not send weapons directly or indirectly to combatants in a war.    

Lawmakers are divided on the issue.    

“We want to be neutral, but we are part of the Western world,” said Thierry Burkart, leader of the center-right FDP party, who has submitted a motion to the government to allow arms re-exports to countries with similar democratic values to Switzerland.     

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

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Engineers, Search Dogs Sent to Turkey, Syria After Quake

Structural engineers, soldiers, paramedics and handlers with trained search dogs are heading to Turkey and Syria to help locate and rescue survivors of Monday’s earthquake. Here’s a glance at the assistance that’s being provided:

The European Union has mobilized search and rescue teams to help Turkey, while the bloc's Copernicus satellite system has been activated to provide emergency mapping services. At least 13 member countries have offered assistance.
The United States is coordinating immediate assistance to Turkey, including teams to support search and rescue efforts. In California, nearly 100 Los Angeles County firefighters and structural engineers, along with six specially trained dogs, were being sent to Turkey.
Russian rescue teams from the Emergencies Ministry were sent to Syria, where Russian military deployed in that country already has sent 10 units comprising 300 people to help clear debris and search for survivors. The Russian military has set up points to distribute humanitarian assistance. Russia also has offered help to Turkey, which has been accepted.





War-ravaged Syria called for the United Nations and its members to help with rescue efforts, health services, shelter and food aid. Both government-held territory and the last opposition-held enclave were damaged by the earthquake.
The Israeli army is sending a search and rescue team of 150 engineers, medical personnel and other aid workers to render lifesaving aid in Turkey. The two countries are mending ties after years of tensions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he has also approved a request for humanitarian aid for Syria. Israel and Syria do not have diplomatic relations.





Neighbor and historic rival Greece is sending Turkey a team of 21 rescuers, two rescue dogs and a special rescue vehicle, together with a structural engineer, five doctors and seismic planning experts in a military transport plane.
South Korea will dispatch a 60-person search and rescue team and send medical supplies to Turkey. The government also says it is providing an initial $5 million in humanitarian support, and the Gyeonggi provincial government plans to provide $1 million in humanitarian assistance.
Pakistan has sent one flight of relief supplies and another carrying a 50-member search and rescue team. The government says daily aid flights to Syria and Turkey will start Wednesday.





Britain is sending 76 search-and-rescue specialists with equipment and dogs, as well as an emergency medical team, to Turkey. The U.K. also says it's in contact with the U.N. about getting support to victims in Syria.
India is sending 100 search and rescue personnel from its Natural Disaster Response Force to Turkey, as well as specially trained dog squads and equipment for relief efforts. Medical teams with trained doctors, paramedics and essential medicines are also ready, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.
Taiwan is sending 130 rescue squad members, five search dogs and 13 tons of equipment to Turkey. Interior Minister Lin Yu-chang said the first group left for Turkey late Monday and another was sent Tuesday. Taiwan earlier said it would donate $200,000 to Turkey.
Swiss rescue dog service REDOG is sending 22 rescuers with 14 dogs to Turkey. The government said it would also send 80 search and rescue specialists to the country, including army disaster experts.
The Czech Republic is sending Turkey a team of 68 rescuers, including firefighters, doctors, structural engineers and also experts with sniffer dogs.
Japan is sending a group of about 75 rescue workers to Turkey.
Lebanon's cash-strapped government is sending soldiers, Red Cross and Civil Defense first responders, and firefighters to Turkey to help with its rescue efforts.
Germany is readying deliveries of emergency generators, tents, blankets and water treatment equipment. It also has offered to send teams from the THW civil protection agency to Turkey. The group International Search and Rescue Germany was also preparing to fly dozens of doctors and rescue experts to Turkey late Monday.





Austria has offered to send 84 soldiers from a military disaster relief unit to Turkey.
Spain was preparing to send two Urban Search and Rescue teams to Turkey with 85 personnel, and a contingent of volunteer firefighters.
Poland is sending Turkey 76 firefighters and eight trained dogs, with equipment.
Romania is sending specialized personnel and material to Turkey on two military aircraft.





Croatia is sending 40 personnel and 10 dogs, rescue equipment and vans to Turkey.
Serbia is sending 21 rescuers and three liaison officers to Turkey.





Montenegro is sending at least 24 firefighters to Turkey.
Moldova's president says 55 rescue workers have been sent to Turkey.
France is dispatching rescue teams to Turkey.
Jordan is sending emergency aid to Syria and Turkey on the orders of King Abdullah II.
Mexico's foreign affairs secretary said the country will send equipment and rescue specialists to Turkey.





Egypt has pledged urgent humanitarian aid to Turkey.
Italy's Civil Protection Agency has offered assistance to Turkey. A firefighting team was preparing to leave from Pisa, and the Italian military says transport flights will carry equipment as well as health and other personnel.
New Zealand is providing $632,000 to the Turkish Red Crescent and $316,000 to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver items such as food, tents and blankets, as well as provide medical assistance and psychological support.
China's Red Cross Society is providing the Turkish Red Crescent and the Syrian Red Crescent with $200,000 each in humanitarian assistance.

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Britcoin? UK Closer to Launching a Digital Currency

U.K. authorities said Monday British businesses and consumers are likely to need a digital version of the pound, formally asking for public comment on the idea of introducing a central bank digital currency.

Britain, home to the world’s second-biggest financial center, is trailing former colonies such as Nigeria, the Bahamas and Jamaica in rolling out a digital currency. More than 80% of the world’s central banks are considering launching digital currencies or have already done so, according to the consultant PwC.

“While cash is here to stay, a digital pound issued and backed by the Bank of England could be a new way to pay that’s trusted, accessible and easy to use,” Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt said in a statement. “That’s why we want to investigate what is possible first, whilst always making sure we protect financial stability.”

The call for public input comes almost two years after the Treasury and Bank of England said they were considering introducing a digital currency.

While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested naming the initiative “Britcoin” when he was Treasury chief, the Bank of England has stressed that the potential currency shouldn’t be confused with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Backed by the central bank, the new currency would be “reliable and retain its value over time,” in contrast to cryptocurrencies that can fluctuate wildly and threaten the holdings of investors, the Bank of England says on its website.

That industry has been particularly unstable in recent months, escalating calls for greater regulation. Crypto crashes last year tanked assets, while crypto exchange FTX’s multibillion-dollar collapse and bankruptcy in November triggered fraud charges against founder Sam Bankman-Fried.

The proposed digital currency would be denominated in pounds, with 10 pounds of digital currency always equal to a 10-pound note, the bank said. Held in a digital wallet, the currency could be used to pay for goods and services electronically.

Supporters of central bank digital currencies say they make digital transactions easier and cheaper and expand access to the financial system because they can be used by people who don’t have bank accounts.

This is one of the reasons the Bahamas became the first country to introduce a digital currency in 2020. Nigeria and Jamaica have since followed suit, with China and more than 20 other countries running trial projects. The U.S. and European Union are considering introducing digital currencies.

But digital currencies also present risks, including cyberattacks, privacy concerns and the danger that they can be used by criminals.

Because money invested in central bank digital currencies is safer than a bank deposit, they also may draw savings away from commercial banks and weaken the financial system, critics argue.

A digital pound would have “risks but no obvious benefits,” former Bank of England Gov. Mervyn King, now a member of the House of Lords, said recently.

While such digital currencies may be useful in countries that don’t have effective banking systems, that’s not the case in Britain, he said.

“The government has said that it wants the U.K. to be at the forefront of innovation, crypto-assets and fintech, but we need to be selective and not driven by a misplaced enthusiasm for all things crypto,” King said.

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